Africa still at sea over its vision of a thriving blue economy

Thursday August 12 2021
The aftermath of an oil leak from vessel MV Wakashio

The aftermath of an oil leak from vessel MV Wakashio that ran aground near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of south-east Mauritius. PHOTO | AFP


Unresolved maritime boundary disputes, illegal arms, drug trafficking and piracy continue to hamper Africa’s dreams of a thriving blue economy, warns a report by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council.

In its July report on African maritime safety and security issues, the AU organ is apprehensive of the sector’s returns, seeing as violence and corruption hold sway. Thirty-eight of Africa’s 54 countries boast of a coastal boundary while 90 percent of import-export occur via the sea.

Top in the challenges noted in the report include unresolved maritime boundary disputes in East and Horn of Africa, illegal arms, drug trafficking and piracy especially in West Africa where 50 crew kidnappings by pirates so far have been reported in the past six months.

For example, Kenya and Somalia have been in maritime boundary dispute forcing the latter to institute proceedings against Kenya at the International Court of Justice in August 2014. The two East African neighbours dispute 160,000 square kilometres of territory in the Indian Ocean with prospects of vast oil and gas deposits. The dispute stems from conflicting interpretations of how boundaries should extend into the Indian Ocean.

Such challenges fly in the face of the African Union’s vision to sustainable ocean (blue) economy; an area seen to hold immense potential as key economic driver of the continent for the next 10 years.

According to a handbook on the sector by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca), the fishing industry employs nearly 12.3 million Africans and the blue economy could potentially solve nutritional and food security problems through underused resources in fresh and salt water fish for nearly 200 million others.


The Peace and Security Council, which released the report after its seventh dedicated meeting to discuss African maritime safety and security issues held on July 23, identified other transnational maritime crimes such as illegal bunkering of oil and crude oil theft, maritime terrorism, and human trafficking. Others are environmental harm caused by waste dumping, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and overfishing.

“Continued instability and insecurity at sea undermine states’ ability to secure trade routes, protect and harness the benefits of their blue economies, and ensure inclusive economic growth and social development for coastal communities,” says the council in its report.

The Peace and Security Council, the AU organ, whose mandate includes prevention, management and resolution of conflicts, recommends that member states move from acknowledging that maritime insecurity poses severe threats to Africa’s security and development agenda to crafting and implementing effective responses that connect and complement cross-cutting intervention efforts at all levels.

Strategic frameworks

“African governments must come up with strategic frameworks if their people are to reap the benefits of this potential bounty,” it said.

In 2013, the Peace and Security Council described maritime security and the Blue Economy as the “new frontline of Africa’s renaissance.” Therefore, by the AU Commission including maritime issues in Agenda 2063, it has made the creation of blue economies in secure African waters essential to its achievement.

However, the AU’s maritime security efforts have been beset with major structural obstacles. Departments and agencies have struggled to secure a solid institutional anchorage and sufficient budget allocation for maritime strategy implementation.

And, despite receiving sufficient signatures from member states, neither the Revised African Maritime Transport Charter nor the African Charter on Maritime Security and Safety and Development in Africa (Lomé Charter) have attained the required number of ratifications to come into force.

As at the end of December 2020, only Togo and Benin had ratified them.

“Both charters are essential parts of a future continent-wide maritime security apparatus, as they are legally-binding documents committing signatories to prioritising the attainment of maritime security in their domestic and foreign policies,” says the AU organ.

Today, there is a clear mention of “blue economy” as the main engine of development in Africa’s agenda 2063 with countries such as the Seychelles and Kenya establishing a line ministry or department for it.

While growing recognition of the value of the marine environment should certainly be celebrated, security threats to that environment are often not fully considered.

Sustainable blue economy

In November 2018 experts, government officials, environmental activists, policy makers and academics converged in Nairobi, Kenya, for the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference.

With the theme “Blue Economy and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the conference, convened and hosted by Kenya, with Canada and Japan as cohosts, looked at new technologies and innovation for oceans, seas, lakes and rivers as well as challenges, and opportunities.

The fact that Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy 2050 (2050 AIM Strategy) continues to fall behind the ambitious schedule of its drafters, despite numerous AU Assembly and Executive Council decisions and requests, requires urgent attention.